Coordinated Management of Meaning

Coordinated Management of Meaning, or CMM, is a theory of communication based on the flow of information or data between two people. The theory states the use of language creates the social world around it. In all, CMM heavily relies on three basic processes: coherence, coordination, and mystery. Separate and sometimes in combination, these processes help to clarify and explain how social realities are created through conversation.

History and orientationThe theory of Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) was developed in the late 1970s by W. Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen. It was initially seen as an interpersonal communication rules-theory, derived from the practices that dominated 1970’s social science research. CMM has evolved over the past four decades from purely academic to thoroughly integrated in various sorts of practice (i.e. scientific to social constructionist/pragmatic, from explanatory/predictive to a practical theory). It began as an interpretive social science but is now seen as expressing itself as a practical theory.
Pearce describes the creation of CMM through the following story: [1]
…I think that I am the first person ever to use the awkward phrase “coordinated management of meaning.” Of course, tones of voice are often more informative than the verbal content of what is said, and struggle and frustration were expressed in the tones of voice in which “CMM” was first said. For years, I had been trying to bring together what I was learning from social science research, rhetorical studies, philosophy, theology, and, in my father's term, the “School of Hard Knocks.” I felt that most of the models of communication that I knew were useful but that all were limited and limiting in some important ways, and that I had to invent something that was better. Communication is about meaning,…but not just in a passive sense of perceiving messages. Rather, we live in lives filled with meanings and one of our life challenges is to manage those meanings so that we can make our social worlds coherent and live within them with honor and respect. But this process of managing our meanings is never done in isolation. We are always and necessarily coordinating the way we manage our meanings with other people. So, I concluded, communication is about the coordinated management of meaning. — W. Barnett Pearce
CMM is related to many other communication theories. One of the fundamental principles of the theory revolves around the idea that the social environment in which we participate in on a daily basis creates distinguishable talking arenas. It looks at how individuals within a society create their own realities through communication. With that being said, realities are made, not found, meaning that communication interactions dictate what realities are created within a society and how they are affected by others. This reality is constantly evolving and adapts itself due to interactions. Prior to the creation of this theory, theorists and scholars focused on pieces of conversation, ignoring the effect of participant interactions. They tended to focus on cause and effect details through interaction. In contrast, CMM examines interactions from a unit perspective/point of view, allowing for the examination of individual interactions. Objective observation leads to interaction comprehension while participating in the actual interaction leads to a greater understanding of communication patterns. CMM sees each conversation as a complex intertwined series of events in which each participant affects and is affected by the other. Many of the opinions generated by parties within a conversation/interaction are largely based on the words and non-verbal actions shared. Further words on CMM can be seen at the following location: CMM Video
CMM basics – levels of interpretationIt has been said that “CMM theory is a kind of multi-tool (like a “Swiss army knife”) that is useful in any situation.”[2] It is not a single theory, but rather a collection of ideas to understand how humans interact during communication. According to CMM, individuals construct their own social realities while engaged in conversation. To put it simply, communicators apply rules in order to understand what is going on during their social interaction. Based on the situation, different rules are applied in order to produce “better” patterns of communication.[3]
CMM theory is a fairly complex study focusing on both the complexity in the micro-social processes and the aspects of daily interaction.[4] Overall, it is concerned with how we coordinate and establish meaning during interactions. The theory can be complicated to teach and/or present to others, but it is best understood when you break it down into the basics. The theory consists of three key concepts, which are further broken down into several different building blocks.
The fundamental building blocks of CMM theory focus specifically on the flow of communication between people. The three different processes experienced either consciously or unconsciously, are coherence, coordination, and mystery.
CoherenceCoherence describes how meaning is achieved in conversation. It is the “process by which we tell ourselves (and others) stories in order to interpret the world around us and our place in it.”[5] Another way to look at coherence is to see it as a unified context for stories told. These “stories told” can further be broken down into six different building blocks: content, speech acts, episodes, relationships, self, and culture.
ContentThe content or message according to CMM theory relates to the data and information spoken aloud during communication. The content is essentially the basic building blocks of any language; however, it is important to note that the content by itself is not sufficient to establish the meaning of the communication.[6]
Speech actAnother integral part of the CMM theory includes the speech act. The simplest explanation of a speech act is “actions that you perform by speaking. They include compliments, insults, promises, threats, assertions, and questions.”[7] CMM theory draws upon the speech act theory, which further breaks down speech acts into separate categories of sounds or utterances. Though the speech act theory is much more detailed, it is important to have an understanding of both illocutionary and perlocutionary utterances.
An Illocutionary Utterance is speech that intends to make contact with a receiver. A Perlocutionary Utterance includes speech that intends to alter the behavior of the receiver. There are many different utterances or speech acts including questions, answers, commands, promises and statements. Having knowledge of each of these plays a large part in an individual being able to participate in a communications exchange.
EpisodeAn episode is a situation created by persons in a conversation. Broken down more simply, face-to-face communication that occurs somewhere at sometime and in the context of whatever else is going on constitutes an episode. Using the building block of episode, you can begin to understand that the same content can take on different meaning when the situation is different. For example, a phrase used amongst close family or friends may take on an entirely different meaning when in a job interview.
As you can see thus far, speech act and episode can both affect the meaning of the content as they are not independent concepts but rather building blocks to communication.
RelationshipThe act of speaking relates the individuals to each other through conversation. This building block is fairly easy to understand as it is the dynamic of what connects two (or more) individuals during an exchange of information. Examples of a relationship could be defined as a parent/child, teacher/student, strangers, etc. As you can see, communication between strangers would likely be different than conversations amongst family members.
SelfSelf, or self-concept, is an individual’s notion of who they are. It is the first person perspective of how an individual experiences life. Several CMM texts describe this building block as the “script for who we are” as if it was the role an individual were to play in the movie of life. For example, an individual may believe they are funny and therefore may act according to that perspective while engaged in different conversations.
“CMM assumes that the self is created in stories and that these stories are guidelines (scripts) for actions.”[8] Based on this explanation, the self can be changed or developed through different stories. In essence, by telling and re-telling a story, the “self” can be molded into whatever picture an individual wants to present to the world.
CultureThe concept of culture in CMM theory relates to a set of rules for acting and speaking which govern what we understand to be normal in a given episode. There are different rules for social interaction depending on the culture. To some extent, during communication individuals act in accordance with their cultural values. While we often don’t even realize that culture impacts communication during day to day interactions, people must learn to be compatible with individuals from different cultures in order to have effective communication.
CoordinationThe concept of coordination has to do with the fact that our actions do not stand alone with regard to communication. The words or actions that we use during a conversation come together to produce patterns. These patterns, also known as stories lived, influence the behavior used during each interaction as a way to collaborate. Pearce and Cronen are quick to point out that coordination does not imply a commitment to coordinate “smoothly”, but rather the concept is meant to provide the basis for being mindful of the other side of the story.[9]
Coordination has to do with the concept of rules establishment which help guide individuals through the interaction of communication. The rules can further be broken down into two different categories for how communication and behavior will be governed.
Constitutive rules are essentially rules of meaning, used by individuals engaged in communication to interpret or understand a particular event or message. Regulative rules are essentially rules of action which determine how individuals are to respond or behave. Each individual follows their own rules; however people can coordinate through the process of communication even when their rules differ. These different rules can mesh allowing for successful communication and/or new rules can be created or improvised to allow for successful coordination.
MysteryThe final concept has to do with the concept that not everything within communication can be explained. Mystery, also known as stories unexpressed, is the recognition that “the world and our experience of it is more than any of the particular stories that make it coherent or any of the activities in which we engage.”[10] Mystery has to do with the sense of awe or wonder when communication leads to a surprising outcome. Put more simply, it is that feeling (anything from attraction to hate) you experience when engaged in conversation that cannot be linked to the situation as a whole.
CMM theory sees each conversation as a complex interconnected series of events in which each individual affects and is affected by the other. Although the primary emphasis of CMM theory has to do with the concept of first person communication, known as a participatory view, once the concepts are understood they are more readily visible during other interactions. Furthermore, this knowledge can be applied to similar situations which will in turn lead to more effective communication.
Application and modelsPearce is adamant that CMM is not just an interpretive theory but is meant to be a practical theory as well.[11][12] There is extensive literature involving the use of CMM to address family violence, intra-community relations, workplace conflict and many other social issues.[13][14][15] Along this line, CMM theorists have used or developed several analysis models to help understand and improve communication. The models addressed here are the Hierarchy Model of Actor’s Meanings, the Serpentine Model, the Daisy Model, the LUUUTT Model and charmed, strange, and subversive loops.
Examples for the first three models have been adapted from ones Pearce uses in one of his writings where he analyzes the courtroom conversation between Ramzi Yousef, the individual convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in 1994, and Kevin T. Duffy, the federal judge who presided over his trial. In Yousef’s statement before sentencing, he criticizes the US for its hypocrisy; he accuses the US of being the premier terrorist, and reasserts his pride in his fight against the US. At the sentencing, Duffy accuses Yousef of being a virus, evil, perverting the principles of Islam, and interested only in death. Neither individual really talks to the other, but rather at them.[16]
Hierarchy ModelThe Hierarchy Model of Actor’s Meanings is a tool for an individual to explore the perspectives of their conversational partner while also enabling them to take a more thorough look at their own personal perspective. This model can also be used by an observer to analyze a completed conversation. The elements at the top of each list form the overall context in which each story takes place and have an influence on the elements below them.
Hierarchy Model of Actor’s Meanings[17]
Person 1:
Culture: Largely unarticulated; powerful sense of morality and duty grounded in a story of oppressive international relations Episode: The United States is the first and most prominent terrorist and hypocritically accuses others of being terrorists Self: “I am a terrorist and proud of it” so long as it is against the oppressors, the United States and Israel Relationship: (to victims) untold story; (to the US) opposing “butchers, liars, hypocrites” Person 2:
Culture: Largely unarticulated; powerful sense of morality grounded in the rule of law and humanistic ethics Episode: The “sentencing phase” of a legally prescribed and carefully followed criminal trial procedure Self: I am the judge; an officer of the court; the spokesperson for justice Relationship: Perceived Yousef as “evil,” carrying a plague-causing virus, betraying his own religious principles Hierarchy Model of Actor’s Meanings Version II[18]
The circle below is another way of looking at the Hierarchy Model. This version shows more clearly how the message is embedded in the relationship, which is embedded in the individual’s concept of self, which is embedded in that specific episode, which occurs within the overall culture.
Serpentine ModelThe CMM theorists take the Hierarchy Model a step further by reinforcing the importance of interaction and adding the aspect of time. Pearce stresses that communication cannot be done alone and that furthermore this usually occurs before or after another’s actions. Therefore, understanding past events and their impact on individuals is essential to improving communication. This new model is called the Serpentine Model and visually demonstrates how communication is a back and forth interaction between participants rather than just a simple transmission of information.[19]
Daisy ModelThe next model takes a more in-depth look at the context of communication. Called the Daisy Model because of its shape, it analyzes the other less noticeable communication events that occur simultaneously with the primary conversation. In the example of Yousef and Duffy, their courtroom conversation is the primary shared event. However, each is participating in multiple concurrent communication events. Yousef is communicating with his family, potential recruits for the cause, and other Muslims. Duffy is communicating with his family, his peers, and the American voter.[20]
LUUUTT ModelThe next tool is the LUUUTT model. LUUUTT stands for stories Lived, Untold stories, Unheard stories, Unknown stories, stories Told, and story Telling.[21] This model is ideal for use during the communication process, particularly with the help of a facilitator. It is also helpful in understanding the larger cultural knowledge. Rossmann’s look at how American culture understands the Alamo is an excellent example.[22]
Stories lived and stories told vary because how we see or want to see ourselves differs from what we actually do. Stories told may be peoples’ way of understanding or coming to grips with their own stories lived. Understanding that these differences exist and paying attention to them can be important to understanding the nuances within a communication event.[23] The well known “do as I say, not as I do” between parent and child is one example of the contrast between stories told and stories lived. Another example might be a person forced into theft or other criminal activity in order to survive. They may not like what they are doing and they may condemn the behavior to others. They might not continue that behavior if the situation were different, but from where they stand, there are no other options. The story that they tell is unlikely to match the story that they are living.
Unheard stories are those that are told but that the conversational partner fails to hear. This may be because they do not want to hear it, are not paying attention, literally cannot hear it, or that the message is being communicated in an unfamiliar or unknown way to them.[24] It is popularly held that diverse groups can provide the best results, but one of the worst situations is to include token members within a group because it is statistically shown that nearly all suggestions made by the token individual will be discounted by the majority group without consideration. The token member becomes the unheard member.
Untold stories are ones that are not shared, at least not with others in that event. Someone may choose not to tell a story for a variety of reasons. If told stories become unheard stories frequently, then they may eventually become untold stories.[25]
Unknown stories are generally ones in which the communicators themselves either don’t know exist or don’t understand well enough to communicate.[26]
Much of the emotional aspect of communication is attributed to the nonverbal aspect of messages, those elements outside of the actual words.[27] When and where a person tells a story, their mannerisms, tone of voice, word choice, and subject matter all contribute to the overall story being told. This is the process of story telling. [28]
Strange loopThe embedded contexts illustrated in the Hierarchy Model represent a stable hierarchy, but stability is neither necessary nor expected. Multiple contexts may hold equivalent importance at the same time or may swap back and forth between levels. This leads to what is called a strange loop.[29][30] Essentially, “a ‘strange’ loop is a repetitive interactional pattern that alternates between contradictory meanings.”[31] In the example below, the alcoholic identifies that he is an alcoholic and then quits drinking. Since he has quit drinking, he convinces himself that he is not really an alcoholic and so he starts drinking again, which makes him an alcoholic. He alternates between contradictory perceptions of being an alcoholic and not being an alcoholic.
Charmed loopA second variation is the ‘charmed’ loop. In this interaction, each person’s perceptions and actions help to reinforce the other’s perceptions and actions.[32]
Subversive loopThe third variation is a ‘subversive’ loop. Texts and contexts within a ‘subversive’ loop are mutually invalidating and can prevent coherence and coordination. It may result in intentionally outrageous behavior, efforts to act in uninterruptible ways, or refusal to recognize the possibility that the outsider can understand the situation of the insider.[33]
Theory criticismIn order to provide criticism of the CMM theory, it is important to establish a baseline for what accounts for a “good” study. Many scholars use different criteria for determining what makes a theory relevant, but they most often surround the following six concepts.[34]
Rule 1: Theories should be evaluated on their ability to produce hypotheses that are consistent with relevant evidence. CMM theory falls short under the criteria of rule 1 as it does not set out to provide measureable hypotheses that can be compared to any other situation. While CMM tries to outline the cause and effect relationship of communication, it fails to create consistencies as the theory dictates that each situation is different. Rule 2: General theories are preferred to less general theories. From the perspective of this rule, CMM theory is very general; however it is also very vague. The theory has difficulty focusing on exactly what is important in each interaction thereby not allowing those who study to theory to understand what is considered critical in a communicative interaction. Rule 3: Theories that produce several hypotheses are preferred to those that produce few. From this perspective, CMM theory fails as it neglects to have even a single hypothesis that is testable. Rule 4: It is more beneficial to evaluate research programs rather than individual theories. As CMM theory focuses on levels of contact between two (or more) persons engaged in conversation, it is unsuccessful as a way to evaluation of anything other than individual interactions. Rule 5: The overall implications of a theory mean that those with several are preferred over those with few. CMM theory focuses on how we create our social environments in the present, however it fails to predict how the theory can affect future events. Rule 6: Simplicity is considered a virtue. In accordance with this rule, CMM theory falls short. CMM is an extremely broad theory with many different terms, views and loopholes which makes a multifaceted study of communication even more complex. From a humanistic perspective, CMM theory is seen as valuable as it seeks to provide a way to clarify communication for better interaction and understanding. It promotes reform by encouraging individuals to explain particular viewpoints in order to reach understanding.
The final point can be seen as both a criticism and positive critique. Pearce and Cronen are constantly building upon the CMM theory which was originally outlined in the 1970s. By constant corrections and revisions, the theorists are working toward improving the examination of communication interactions; however, with each new update, minor course corrections alter the terms and meanings which increase the complexity of the overall theory.
Theory developers
Biography of W. Barnett Pearce W. Barnett PearceW. Barnett Pearce is a teacher, facilitator, and theorist. He has consulted with communities and organizations, facilitated public and private meetings, and trained professionals in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa. He is a Professor in the School of Human and Organization Development, Fielding Graduate University, a member of the Public Dialogue Consortium, and co-principal of Pearce Associates, Inc.
Known for his work in developing communication theory, he has written seven books and over one hundred scholarly articles and chapters. He was a Senior Visiting Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford University, in 1989, and a Fulbright Fellow in Argentina in 1997. He was awarded the PhD degree in 1969 by the College of Communication at Ohio University.
Biography of Vernon Cronen Vernon CronenVernon Cronen is a Professor in the Department of Communication, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He also serves as a member of the International Communication Association, the Speech Communication Association, and the Eastern Communication Association. He was awarded the PhD degree in 1970 by the University of Illinois.
Cronen’s primary research interests concern the development and application of CMM as methodology for: (1) analysis of situated communication, (2) critique of the forms of life that are created, recreated, and sustained by communication, and (3) helping practitioner join with clients for creative change. He has written and/or contributed to seventeen books and over eighty journal articles and convention papers.
Related communications theoriesSpeech Act Theory: Idea that the meaning of a conversation is not limited to the meaning of the words. The words may gain new meaning depending on the situation or how they are used. Language is an action rather than just a means of sharing information. Important people: John Austin, Adolf Reinach, Searle Symbolic Interaction: An influential perspective within sociology that purposed people’s actions are guided by how they value things which is inturn influenced by their society. Important people: Mead, Blumer Systems Theory: A transdisciplinary study of the abstract organization of phenomena, independent of their substance, type, or spatial or temporal scale of existence. Important people: von Bertalanffy, Ashby, Rapoport, Paul Watzlawick Dialogism: Initially based on the interrelated conversation between works of literature and later expanded to the greater social experience. Important people: Mikhail Bakhitin.

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